Should South Korea Pursue Nuclear Arms?

South Korea and the United States confront a dilemma in responding to erratic threats from impoverished, nuclear-armed North Korea. South Korea ranks among the top 15 largest economies, while the North is dysfunctional. In recent weeks North Korea has test-launched a long-range missile, criticized China’s response to the launch, severed all communications with South Korea, and threatened preemptive nuclear strike on the US. Since diplomatic agreements for defense fail time and time again, the US must decide whether to return previously stationed nuclear weapons to South Korean soil, risking wrath from China and North Korea. Delay could tempt South Korea to build its own nuclear arsenal. Compounding the dilemma, North Korea has untested new leadership and possible internal quarrels. Few expect rational response from the secretive, narcissistic regime. Former US official Bennett Ramberg recommends that, as diplomacy continues, the US should restore nuclear weapons to South Korea to enhance deterrence. But nuclear conflict in the region will produce no winners. Neighboring states – including China, Russia and Japan – should engage in active diplomacy, supporting defense of South Korea and rejecting the North’s reckless extortion. – YaleGlobal

Should South Korea Pursue Nuclear Arms?

The US could return nuclear weapons to South Korea to contain Pyongyang’s threat
Bennett Ramberg
Friday, March 29, 2013

Preparing for Armageddon: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects landing and anti-landing drills (top); in response to his threat, the US dispatched nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers for an exercise in South Korea

LOS ANGELES: Following North Korea’s February 12 nuclear weapons test, the UN Security Council adopted tough penalties on Pyongyang. Along with a new round of financial sanctions, the council beefed up inspections of suspect cargo to and from the country and took steps to halt illegal activities by Pyongyang diplomats – all intended to squeeze North’s nuclear and missile programs.

But the sanctions do not address the more serious questions raised by North Korea’s doubling down challenge threatening preemptive nuclear strikes on the United States as well as threats against South Korea and Japan: To keep tensions from boiling over, should Washington let Pyongyang pout and rant with little additional pushback, banking that time will force the poor, isolated country to return to the bargaining table? Or, given the regime’s penchant for risk-taking, ought the United States itself double down and return its nuclear weapons to South Korean soil leaving no doubt that it remains committed to Seoul’s defense by whatever means? Alternatively, should South Korea, concerned that Washington’s economic challenges and fatigue with global leadership may fray its commitment to the South’s defense, move toward nuclear weapons? Would either tack dangerously incite Pyongyang or make it more prudent? 

These questions are not simple or easy to answer, but attempting to do so gives a starting point to plot the future. On balance, placing US nuclear weapons back in South Korea may be the best end point to reduce risks.

Pyongyang has responded to the new sanctions with its customary bluster against South Korea, military demonstrations and leadership visits to frontline forces. More ominously it added cancellation of the armistice agreement that ended the Korean War, cut communication links with South Korea coupled with the nuclear threats against the United States. 

At other times Washington might have treated North Korea’s rhetoric as so much puffing. But with both Pyongyang’s nuclear and long-range missile program advancing, President Barack Obama told ABC news that although the North “probably can’t” make good on its threat to hit the US homeland “we don’t like margin of error.” The result, the president signed off on Pentagon plans to add an additional 14 missiles in Alaska by 2017 to the 30 that possibly could – the program’s reliability remains in question – defend the country against such a strike. 

While it may be many years before the North can hit the US homeland with the required long-range nuclear-armed ballistic missile, South Korea does not have that luxury.  Pyongyang’s arsenal today contains shorter-range rockets capable of striking South Korea. Presumably Kim’s scientists are working hard to develop a warhead that could fit on to such delivery systems. In the interim the South must evaluate whether a defense strategy geared toward a conventional-armed adversary is capable of dealing with an emerging nuclear one. 

Polling in South Korea suggests popular doubt. Even before North Korea’s nuclear weapons test, two-thirds of interviewees stated security requires a nuclear component – either American nuclear weapons on South Korean soil or an indigenous South Korean arsenal. In the current pinch, the latter could come from plutonium harvested from the South’s nuclear spent fuel, a byproduct of the country’s large nuclear-power program. Contrary to conventional wisdom, civil reactors can serve as plutonium mines for weapons-usable material. Extracting the plutonium would require a reprocessing plant that Korea does not have today. It also does not have a bomb design. Weapon manufacture could take two years. However, given Washington’s unalterable determination to halt new nuclear-weapons proliferation, whether by friend or foe, such a step would meet intense American pushback jeopardizing the alliance as Seoul experienced when it last explored the option in 1974. 

Rather than steer a separate course, Washington counsels South Korea that the security relationship remains strong buttressed by some 28,000 American troops in the South in addition to the offshore US nuclear umbrella housed in Guam, Okinawa and at sea available to deter and fight if needed. To demonstrate the commitment, with aircraft launched from Guam and Missouri, the US Air Force conducted a nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 flyover of the South in recent military exercises that included nuclear-armed warships. At the conclusion of the naval exercises, South Korean officials reported the vessels would “stay a while” to impress Pyongyang about Washington’s nuclear commitment.

“A while” does not make for a permanent presence. History suggests that a layered nuclear deployment may offer more impact and reassurance, with the location of US nuclear weapons both in and out of the European theater during the Cold War being a prime example. 

That same policy applied to South Korea during the Cold War. From 1958 to 1991, the United States housed 11 different nuclear weapons at different times in the South. At the peak, the arsenal included nearly 1000 munitions designed for two purposes, one to target the Soviet Union and China in addition to North Korea and the second to substitute for costly ground forces. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington withdrew the arsenal. Well before, offshore nuclear weapons already had begun to compensate for earlier drawdowns. 

The 1991 elimination laid the foundation for the February 1992 North-South agreement to denuclearize the peninsula. Unfortunately the ambition was short-lived, crumbling by year’s end with Pyongyang’s failure to cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency investigators. Although, in time, some South Korean politicians called for the return of US weapons – gaining traction when in 2010 Defense Minister Kim Tae-Young told a parliamentary committee that the option deserved review – the government backpedaled, holding that its fidelity to denuclearization would rub off on the North.

Such denuclearization was not to be. North Korea’s recent test stimulated yet more debate in Seoul. In Washington, even before Pyongyang’s recent test, the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee formally called upon the Pentagon to review the option of an American nuclear presence in the South.

Such an appraisal must weigh alternatives and objections against the acute vulnerabilities South Korea could confront without a US nuclear presence and the fact that no missile-defense system can perform to perfection. Absent the return of nuclear weapons, South Korea will be open to North Korean nuclear intimidation and more risk-taking dismissive of the credibility of Washington’s offshore nuclear forces. The absence could encourage Pyongyang to pursue military acts and dare Seoul: “Respond and look what we have.” In the normal course of tensions, North Korea’s arsenal could bully.  

A return of nuclear weapons to South Korea will no doubt butt against the argument that they’ll impede the diplomatic effort to reverse Pyongyang’s nuclear program. However, history has spoken: Every understanding to constrain North Korea – the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, the 1992 peninsula denuclearization accord, the 1994 Agreed Framework, the 2005 Six-Party Talks agreement to end the program – has failed along with the North’s 2012 consent to suspend nuclear and missile tests for Washington’s food aid.      

Rather than hope for a North Korean nonproliferation epiphany, South Korea must better prepare to live with its disturbing neighbor while conveying the emphatic message that the Kim regime will gain no military or political advantage. The return of American nuclear weapons to South Korea would be the strongest statement the United States can make to buttress the position.


Bennett Ramberg, PhD, JD, served in the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the US Department of State during the George H.W. Bush administration. He is the author of “Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy,” University of California Press, and can be reached at

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